What is it about Fly Fishing?

What is it that makes fly fishing special?

I was recently undergoing, actually “enduring” I think would be an apt term, some rehabilitation training for my failing spine. Not that I am quite a cripple yet, but certainly I have reached a point where action needs to be taken and that mostly revolves around discipline and exercise. (Yes two things which I am sure you are aware are generally well down near the bottom of my average agenda). Anyway the back needs a little attention and TLC and I don’t suppose a lifetime of wandering in wet footwear over riverine boulders has helped the situation much, but then everything has a price and I suppose I would crawl up a river if I had to.

So there I was on the floor of the gym and the biokineticist was asking about fly fishing, in fact he was suggesting that “there wasn’t that much special about it”, as though the flinging of a pilchard or the hoiking of a metal spoon into the surf was indeed in the same frame. Now I must offer some explanation, if not defence, for his viewpoint, he grew up in Durban and everyone in his family obviously views fishing for Shad (Elf or Bluefish to some of you), as a rite of passage, if not indeed a seasonal food source.

So anyway I found myself on all fours, flexing various abdominal muscles, trying to focus on sustained contractions, whilst at the same trying to explain the allure of fly fishing. Actually I might have moved dangerously close to trying to defend it.

There is nothing quite like defending something you are passionate about to get your dander up and I may well have tensed those muscles just a tad too hard once or twice; it’s a miracle that I didn’t end up with some self-induced hernia injury or something. What an affront, to suggest that fly fishing was no different to all the other formats of piscine capture.  I am not knocking the rest, the bait anglers, the spinner throwers and all of that, but I have to believe that fly fishing is special. The trouble is, what makes it special and how do you try to convey that to someone else?

There is a delicacy to the process for one thing, perhaps not always, not with Czech nymphs and tungsten beads, not perhaps with woolly buggers and “Gummy Minnows”, but in general there is a delicacy to fly fishing that is lacking in some of the other forms of the piscatorial arts. That said there is delicacy in ballet and flower arranging and I can’t say that I am a great fan of either, so what is it?

It is a tricky question, even for someone who has dedicated, (some might venture wasted), his life in the pursuit of fish on the fly.

To start with I think that the attraction is simply that it is difficult, not onerously so, but tricky none the less. There are few things in life that are both easy and truly rewarding and perhaps a great deal of the attraction simply lays there, the difficulty of it all.

Then there is the unpredictability of it, even on the top of your game the Gods can move against you, the weather changes, the fish have one of their moments. Fishing in general and fly fishing in particular rarely enjoys even the illusion of certainty.

I frequently find that I have to caution clients when we are in the car park getting ready to fish. They seem to imagine that by some means I know what to expect, what fly to use, what will be happening on the stream.  I often need to point out that right at that very moment I don’t have a cooking clue as to what to expect and my fly selection at that juncture was based on two things, the need to secure the line from flapping about during our walk to the water and what I happened to have stuck in my hat at the time.  It’s hardly scientific and perhaps the clients would enjoy a more erudite and marketable answer, but the truth is that I have fished enough to know that only an idiot would make crucial decisions in a car park.

Perhaps that thought process leads me unerringly closer to the truth, the truth is that fly fishing by its very nature requires that you adapt to what is actually happening on the water at the time. It is one of those things that make fishing special and fly fishing doubly so, you have no control over the field of play. It is the thing that makes angling competition so fraught. Easy to play tennis on the same sized court, it matters not really the season, or the location.   Simple to play soccer on a mowed and tended field or to wallop a squash ball about a court of fixed dimension. In fly fishing things change and they can change by the hour so it rapidly becomes a question of “adapt or die”.

Then there is an essential equality to fly fishing, at least fly fishing on public water.  I enjoy the challenge of public water, there isn’t any real advantage that one can gain by spending more money or having better gear. Certainly the marketing department would like you to think so but in reality you can either “do it” or not. On public water the local plumber with his foam handled fibreglass rod can get to cast at the same fish as the litigation attorney did last Wednesday.  Although in current economic times it could be the plumber with the handcrafted split cane, who knows? Flyfishing is however a great leveller, it is just you and the fish and nobody else to blame.

Perhaps the real kicker is that you know that you could fail, failure is an anathema in the modern world, at least for adults. We aren’t’ supposed to fail, and whilst I venture out with the expectation of catching fish, and indeed most of the time I fulfil that expectation, I do know that it may not be the case. The prospect of failure actually adds to the allure, spice to the dish as it were, because you may not prevail. When your fly is drifting down on the current,(and sorry but all of my fishing dreams contain, clear water, currents and dry flies), it is always the fish that has the final say. If you are aiming your 3006 at a buck of some type, you have the say, you pull the trigger, but if you are fly fishing the result is eminently out of your hands. The fish has to make a mistake, you have to fool it into that mistake and I think finally we approach the truth of the matter.

Fly fishing is a game of deception, one may venture, albeit unkindly, that is the motivation for it becoming such a boardroom sport. But I suspect that is the real attraction, you don’t have control, you are putting yourself in a position where you may well get better at the process, cast more accurately, delay the onset of drag or recognise hatches, insects and rise forms, but in the end you are in the hands of the fish and I think that therein lies the appeal. Fly fishing can be difficult, demanding and frustrating, but the real thing about it is that no matter how good you get at it, there will always be the fish which outwits you.  In fact I suspect that it isn’t our successes which drive us on, so much as our failures. That fish under the bramble where we made a poor cast, or the brown trout which bumped the hopper pattern and decided against eating it.

No fly fishing is special, or at least to me it is, and no matter the difficulty of trying to convey that message to a non-believer whilst prostrate on an exercise mat, abdominal muscles tensed and in control, the truth is there, there is nothing quite like fly fishing. If you don’t get that it’s fine, but for those of us who do, well we would rather eat our own young than give it up.

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